Music Aficionado opens this essay about my favorite rock band with …
To many music “aficionados,” Chicago is a kitschy, middle-of-the-road band that never took any chances. Their chart-topping ballads are the very definition of safe, adult-contemporary radio programming, and their pop songs are the perfect background music for the doctor’s office.
… and then corrects the reader:
I believe the above generalizations are all part of a clichéd rap that has little merit. This uber-popular Windy City collective have got serious chops. In fact, Chicago have been masters of creating challenging, well-arranged, deep-dive material from the very start. They pioneered some of the most interesting group arrangements in pop/rock history, and they opened doors for a long line of A-list groups that followed their lead.
Working with visionary producer James William Guercio, Chicago pioneered the use of intricate horn arrangements in pop and rock music almost 50 years ago. It’s something they did right out of the box on their 1969 double-album debut that was dubbed Chicago Transit Authority, with hard-charging songs like Beginnings, Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, Listen, Questions 67 and 68, and I’m a Man. The latter track was a raucous, percussive-oriented extended cover version of the Spencer Davis Group hit originally sung by an exuberant, teenaged Steve Winwood in January 1967.
‘Chicago Transit Authority’—which was actually the band’s full name at the time, until they were forced to shorten it to one geographical word after the city’s actual CTA protested its usage—was ultimately certified at double-platinum sales. It also forged the template for the band’s penchant for producing expansively composed double albums. And it helped open the radio-play doors for other horn-centric bands of the era, including Blood Sweat & Tears, Cold Blood, Electric Flag, Lighthouse, Tower of Power, Average White Band, The Ohio Players, and The Sons of Champlin. (Incidentally, the latter band’s success is significant because their vocalist/guitarist Bill Champlin would eventually join Chicago and be a key member of their lineup for 28 years.)
Furthermore, Terry Kath, their original guitarist, was so good, he received props from none other than Jimi Hendrix himself. After seeing Chicago play at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles in 1968, Hendrix told co-founding saxophonist Walt Parazaider, “The horns are like one set of lungs—and your guitar player is better than me!” High praise indeed from the high priest of the fretboard. (Sadly, Kath passed away from an accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1978.)
Steven Wilson, the guru of post-progressive sounds (via Porcupine Tree and his own solo work) and remix master of many a classic/progressive rock band (e.g., Yes, King Crimson, ELP, Jethro Tull, and Gentle Giant) is a music aficionado nonpareil. Wilson cites Chicago as being one of his favorite artists.
I agree. Like Wilson, the more I put the needle down on their album tracks, the more I appreciate where Chicago were coming from as a whole.
In talking about Chicago’s initial series of albums — ‘CTA’, ‘II’, and III — Wilson says, “I consider all of these albums to be classics, but perhaps Chicago II is the pre-eminent masterpiece. It’s got everything: moments of tender beauty to power riffs and scorched-earth jazz-rock, catchy melodies, and gorgeous vocal harmonies.”
Again, I have to concur with Wilson, as ‘Chicago II’ not only features the mystical sing-along-inducing perpetual set-list favorite 25 or 6 to 4, but it also boasts longer compositions like the 13-minute, seven-part suite “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”—from which a pair of Top 10 singles, Make Me Smile and Colour My World, were culled—and the four movements of the politically charged 10-minute-long Side 4-opening piece, It Better End Soon.
To further bolster my case, I figured I’d ask two current members of Chicago—band co-founder and trumpeter Lee Loughnane (pronounced “Lock-nane”) and bassist/vocalist Jason Scheff, who replaced Peter Cetera in September 1985—to verify my judgment of the band’s sonic merits. (Incidentally, Scheff is the son of Elvis Presley bassist Jerry Schiff; not a bad pedigree, to say the least.)
Loughnane confirms that the impetus for ‘Chicago Transit Authority’ was to make listeners feel like they were an integral part of the overall presentation themselves. “The album was designed sonically as though you were listening to us live,” the trumpeter explains. “That’s the whole point of our music—to make it sound like you’re right there with us.” And that’s the key to Chicago’s inherent musical prowess: concocting a lively mixture of brass, vocals, guitar, and percussion tracks that does not sound like it was all artificially layered together.
That said, it is true the horns were relegated to a less prominent role in the band’s later hit-driven ’80s mixes (Hard Habit to Break, You’re the Inspiration, Look Away, et al). This may account in part for the decrease in critical acclaim (or lack thereof) even as their sales figures increased.
For his part, Scheff takes a longer view of the impact of the Chicago catalog at large. “It’s a phenomenal songbook that never gets old to perform, all these years later,” he points out. “There was always a striving for musical excellence to not compromise, and to make sure every album was wall-to-wall solid. It’s our work ethic, you know?”
Scheff further confirms that his own favorite Chicago tracks are the aforementioned “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” and Saturday in the Park, a #3 single from 1972’s Chicago V. “Those two are phenomenal, classic songs,” he asserts.
Maintaining a high degree of live energy six decades into a career can be a daunting challenge, but Loughnane feels starting shows with Introduction, the first song the band recorded for that very first CTA album, is a good way to set the table. “It’s Terry [Kath]’s song telling what it is we’re going to do, and how we do it. It goes through many different styles that we still do today,” he says.
“I saw a quote from Robert [Lamm, co-founding keyboardist/vocalist],” Loughnane continues, “and I’m paraphrasing him, but he pretty much says that other groups try to remake themselves. David Bowie did it many, many times, and Madonna can do it sometimes, even with a hairstyle. But Chicago—we have done it all with our music, and there’s no way we’re going to become a rap group or a techno group. We have dabbled in all of these styles, but that’s part of the beauty of the band. We have so many different styles, but that’s what we are. To present the band to a concert audience exactly as who we are is the most appropriate thing.”
Staying true to their roots has kept Chicago in good stead with their audience—and with themselves. “You know what? When we played the Grammys in 2014, there was a bit of vindication I felt inside,” Scheff relates. “You’re probably one of the first people I’ve told this to, but when Daft Punk swept the Grammys that year, I said to myself, ‘I knew I was on the right track.’ Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories featured Nile Rodgers from Chic, and the reason that album resonated is because it felt like something—it sounded like something from the late ’70s and early ’80s, with that groove. And that’s why I’ve been saying, ‘Stop trying to be cool—be who you are.’ That’s what I bring to the table. If somebody doesn’t want to revisit what they once were, that’s fine with me. I never wanted to worry about anything other than the feel of what we want to put out there.” …
The summer of 2017 marks the 50th consecutive year Chicago will be out on the road, this time co-headlining with longtime friends and foils The Doobie Brothers. At this point, there’s no end in sight to Chicago’s touring authority—nor should there be.
“I don’t know how long it’s gonna go—but there’s no reason to stop now, I can tell you that much,” Loughnane says with a laugh. Why, I believe the veteran trumpeter just told us exactly what time it is—it’s Chicago time, people. And I’d venture to say their overall impact and staying power is feeling stronger every day.